In 2019, I became gravely ill with a virus that attacked my brain and spinal cord and I temporarily lost my ability to walk. Whilst going through the initial diagnosis and subsequent rehabilitation, it gave me pause for thought – not just to consider my future career but also my past experiences. There’s nothing like a two-and-a-half-hour spinal MRI to allow you to reflect!
I asked myself: if I was to be medically discharged, had I done what I joined to do and what have I learned in the last 16 years of service? I found this reflection a very meaningful and cathartic experience.
This may be a primer for those considering service in the military, or hopefully be illustrative in some way to those already serving, particularly in Command positions. These may be random musings and I ask for your forbearance; however, I hope that the reader finds a few key tenets and observations that I have reflected upon useful.
During my time in the Army I have laughed, lived, lost and learned. Alliteration aside, it has been an incredible experience I am hugely grateful for.
Command is finite, leadership is enduring
Post-Afghanistan, I learned a lot supporting a small team through PTSD, career changes and discharges – both medical and by personal choice. To use the well-worn adage, ‘you break it – you bought it’. If you take soldiers into conflict you must look after them for as long as they need it and as long as you are able to.
Say you’ll always be there and mean it. Be consistent for your current or former soldiers or staff. They deserve it. You will not be perfect and they will not expect it, but be consistent in word and deed. To be otherwise creates inconsistency and leads to toxic leadership.
Leadership is like the share market. Invariably there will ups and downs, high and lows, and countless challenges. You must invest in it, and there are always some risks, personally and professionally. It pays dividends long after your initial investment if you continue to invest in it long after you may be formally required to.
I commanded a small team in Afghanistan in 2010 on Mentoring Task Force One. I was at a small patrol base with 18 people under my command, tasked with mentoring some members of the Afghanistan National Army. We suffered operational casualties that were unprecedented at the time. I have tried my best to keep tabs on my soldiers over almost 10 years of ups and downs. This is where the share market analogy comes to the fore. Any way I could assist, I did and still do. It could be assisting them gain employment by writing a reference or being a referee or assisting financially without request to support them through tough times. Years ago, I read ‘Weary: King of the River’, Sue Ebery’s epic biography of Sir Ernest ‘Weary’ Dunlop. After the War, Weary would drive his soldiers who had been fellow prisoners of war, to medical appointments.
I was struck by this long before I enlisted, however the sentiment resonates to me more now that I seek to look after my soldiers for as long as they need it.
Make the important measurable, not the measurable important
Morale is essential. Figure out how you measure it. You will need to drive hard as a leader, but be a human. Gauging morale and mental health may take insight and assistance from experts. Mental health ‘pulse checks’ and more psychological assistance are crucial. Seek it yourself as required and make it known when applicable and remove the stigma. I sought extensive assistance post-Afghanistan to process the trials of combat and made it known to my subordinates during Company Command that I had found it very beneficial. Mental health is as crucial as physical health.
Don’t be afraid to seek psychological help for those who need it and may not know. There are many avenues for assistance.
Define your career but do not let your career define you
Do not make comparisons. Run your own race and pursue your passions and interests. You may find a niche and even as a General Service Officer become an expert over your tenure. Army will benefit from that.
Seek postings you want, not just ‘what is good for your career’. Army can accommodate those who have circumstances that require inherent flexibility. Incorporate an attitude of what is best for your service vs what is best for the military. You will have superiors and peers who forge a certain path; however, that may either not be open to you, or bring the best out in you. Over time, the tried and true roles have changed in nature and the path your boss took may not be as relevant to you.
Remember you are lucky to serve. You have chosen this vocation and have made a conscious decision. Not everyone is lucky enough to serve their nation. Never lose sight of that.
Respect is the reward, not rank
Invariably, everyone will reach their ceiling rank. As a friend once remarked, ‘there is only one CEO’. When that time comes, you can still serve and contribute and arguably have more autonomy to choose postings. Consider and appreciate what you are giving and receiving in a very rewarding role. If you are bringing your best, you will be respected regardless of your rank. This will endure long after you leave the military.
No job is for life, but friends are
The friends I have made are friends for life. This was reinforced to me last year numerous times. While I was gravely ill, a former Company Sergeant Major drove from Brisbane to Canberra unbeknownst to me to surprise me in hospital. One morning, the curtain was drawn back and instead of a nurse, there was a hulking 6’6” Warrant Officer Class Two. He had been my Assault Pioneer Platoon Sergeant and Company Sergeant Major. My face was the picture of complete surprise. When I asked why he came down, he simply said that he thought I needed support. We chatted and caught up and days later I wrote to him and said it was one of the kindest things anyone had done for me. We will be friends forever.
I have a small coterie of friends who are like brothers and sisters. That can be a throw away term, however they really are. There is a group from my time at Duntroon who have remained close over sixteen years and we have supported each other through triumph and tragedy.
Appreciate the tangible benefits, cherish the intangible
A cursory internet search will give anyone an appreciation of what Defence members earn in addition to their ancillary benefits (Superannuation, Leave, Rental Assistance) just to name a few. There is also medallic recognition for operational and time spent in service. These are tangible acknowledgements of a commitment to serve your nation. The full scope and scale of these benefits may not be the reason for serving but they are tangible and consistent across all services.
Reflection on sixteen years of service has allowed me to cherish the intangibles. I acknowledge and appreciate the tangible benefits I received, however I cherish the intangible aspects of military service. These are unique to each individual. However, for me, friendships, cultural exposure and working with other nations have been invaluable. Overall, a sense of service and sacrifice and a contribution to the service to my nation prevails.
Death is a part of life and you are never fully prepared
During my service I have been exposed to death, both on operations and domestically. I must be frank in saying I was not fully prepared for each instance. Domestically, I have lost a boss and two soldiers.
Dealing with each one has revealed its own complexities both personally and professionally. My boss passing away made the world appear to turn on its axis. All I have been able to do is to support his wife and son and try and emulate the best of his character every single day. He was, and is, an inspiration in everything he did.
Operationally, the loss of Privates Tomas Dale and Grant Kirby on 20 August 2010 in Afghanistan rocked me to the core. As the Patrol Commander, I felt an enormous amount of guilt as I had delivered the orders and sighted positions where they were killed. I have reconciled that. However, I learned that planning for casualties in orders is vastly different to the reality. Emotions are extremely powerful and need to be compartmented to achieve the mission. That is non-negotiable and is truly a condition of service.
Domestically, the loss of soldiers was a shock. In my first year of Company Command, I received a call from the Duty Officer to inform me that one of my soldiers had died in a motorbike accident. Travelling to identify him with the CO and RSM was hugely challenging and something I was not fully prepared to do. Death is a reality of life and will confront you at times when least expected. The second death was a suicide the night before assuming my second year in Company Command in a new Company. This was a huge shock and sent ripples through the unit. The psychological support was crucial in conducting a ‘pulse check’. While this is good initially, grief can change over time and needs to be followed up. Being busy is good, and can provide a meaningful distraction for some time, but during down time issues can come home to roost. You have to be prepared for that.
Make time to make time
Time is our only non-renewable resource. Some Commanders equate being busy with being successful; they cultivate a culture or cult of 'busyness' in their organisation. This does not often equate to the best outcomes and leads to burn out and job dissatisfaction.
Make time when you can to pause and reflect. Remember you are in command for several years and the soldiers will invariably be in the unit for many more years and may be subjected to Platoon and Company Commanders who are charging hard for a limited tenure.
Making time can occur through efficiency and allowing Commanders at lower levels their autonomy to design training programs to incorporate time for reflection and introspection. Recent years have seen an increase in Professional Military Education and meaningful platforms to encourage discourse on the profession of arms. While crucial to the development of our soldiers and officers, this also takes time out of training. Having time for soldiers to reflect on their own experiences, and to conduct crucial personal administration, is essential to make them prepared and ready for any eventuality.
One my greatest regrets regarding not making time to make time is a very small vignette which is deeply personal. Prior to a major clearance patrol I was commanding in Afghanistan, I had Manoeuvre Support Platoon at my Patrol Base to assist me in the operation by providing crucial support of the patrol route, both in over-watch and also in patrols on the opposite side of the Baluchi River.
The day before the patrol, I conducted a patrol base brief to make everyone aware of some of the friction points of having a relatively large number of troops in a small location. After briefing the assembled troops I asked if there were any questions.
I scanned the crowd to see if any hands were raised. As I did, a familiar face caught my eye. Private Grant Kirby had been one of my soldiers in Timor-Leste in 2006-7 and was a mature, lovely bloke. I wanted to seek him out to say G’day as he was in Manoeuvre Support Platoon and we had infrequent interaction. I wanted to say hello, but had to brief the media from the Courier Mail who happened to be at the Patrol Base at that time.
The next day Private Grant Kirby was killed whilst in over-watch on a hill in the Baluchi Valley. To this day, I regret not taking two minutes out of a very busy day to say hello. You never know if there will another time to make contact.
Leave a legacy
Your period of service will vary. But you can always leave a legacy with even the smallest time or briefest interaction. You may actively choose to do this or have this reflected to you by your subordinates, peers or superiors. The legacy may be through your conduct (good or bad), active or passive mentoring, or your friendship. There is no rulebook for this. However, when your service concludes ask yourself, ‘what did I give to the Army?'
You can simplify it with blood, sweat and tears or you can look deeper and recall the simple things, like putting a soldier on a course that sowed the seed for their service in Special Forces, or providing guidance through an instructional position where you get to pass on your experiences to cadets, just as your instructors did to you.
This is very rewarding and cathartic and came to light when I assisted a former cadet that I had instructed at Duntroon, who was deploying on a United Nations mission and wanted my advice. I was the connective tissue between him and a former colleague of mine from Syria. That connection gave the (now) Captain a useful contact to prepare him for a unique operational deployment.
I remain intensely proud to serve in the military. It is a unique organisation requiring unique character traits of its people every day. The lessons outlined above are not taken for granted and, while challenging, have galvanized my resolve to continue to serve for as long as I can. I hope they are illustrative in some way to the reader as a small insight into my career, which is just one amongst many. All who serve will have their own conditions of service and I am privileged to be able to share mine.
This article is dedicated to Colonel Robert Sanders, Private Tomas Dale and Private Grant Kirby. I think of them every day.
I know how proud he would have been of you, your journey and the path you have now in front of you.
Stand strong and proud, and live as Rob would have.